On Cannabis Reform, Tulsi Gabbard Wants to Cut to the Chase

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When U.S. House Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, introduces two new cannabis-related reform bills on Thursday, she will enter a growing debate over how Democrats should usher in cannabis reform, which is becoming an early flash point in the Democratic presidential primary.

Gabbard told Cannabis Wire in an interview this week that the two bills she plans to reintroduce—the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019, and the Marijuana Data Collection Act—offer “a very direct approach,” she said, to reform and legalization on a bipartisan basis. Gabbard has scheduled a press conference Thursday with co-sponsor Don Young, a House Republican from Alaska, and the advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), to announce the bills and push for passage.

Gabbard says she wants to avoid side issues and get to the “root cause”—ending prohibition, she said during our interview.

Gabbard is also a supporter of the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill reintroduced last week in the House and Senate that would legalize cannabis, expunge past cannabis convictions, and offer funding for community reinvestment, among other progressive items that seek to ameliorate the harms prohibition has caused for communities of color. But Gabbard said that while she supports those ideas, she believes that the House must be realistic and pass legislation that can also make it through a GOP-controlled Senate.

Gabbard’s Ending Federal Prohibition Act goes further than the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act, known as the STATES Act,  because her bill would take cannabis out of the Controlled Substances Act, legalizing it nationwide, rather than only in places that have legalized cannabis at the state level, like STATES, which has not yet been reintroduced in the new Congress.

Meanwhile her second bill, theMarijuana Data Collection Act, Gabbard said, would give policymakers and lawmakers a factual, scientific starting point to begin debates about public health and criminal justice and other cannabis-related reform efforts. The data collection bill would direct the National Academy of Sciences to publish a biannual study “on the effects of state legalized marijuana programs on revenues and state allocations, public health, substance use, criminal justice, and employment,” according to a document Gabbard’s office is circulating to members of Congress.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Borden, Cannabis Wire: There’s a lot of cannabis reform in the air right now. Where do you feel your two bills fit in and why are they the best approach?

Gabbard: The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition bill is very simple. It’s clear-cut and it would address all of the other issues that are being raised around the arcane policies that we have in place with marijuana still being a Schedule 1 drug.

The other legislation that we’re introducing, the marijuana data collection bill, is important to pass alongside this legislation—to provide people with facts about marijuana policies and their impacts. I think of both of these bills as being bipartisan, and the data collection bill in particular should have the support of every member of Congress, even those who may disagree with ending the federal prohibition. How can they be against gathering facts and data?  

Borden: And when you say bipartisan, are you speaking of both the House and Senate?

Gabbard: Yes. Especially once we’re able to pass these bills from the House, then the ball is squarely within the court of the Senate. And unlike some of the other pieces of legislation out there that bring in other issues, there’s no secondary or tertiary issue that can be pointed to as a reason to defeat or vote against these pieces of legislation.

Borden: In terms of secondary or tertiary issues, are you talking about community reinvestment and other items that Cory Booker wants with the Marijuana Justice Act?

Gabbard: That’s one example. I support that, I think it’s a great idea. But again—there are others who would perhaps take a different approach, and by focusing on ending the marijuana prohibition very simply and very directly we are dealing with this underlying issue that must be addressed.

Borden: So, in that way, you feel like your bills offer the opportunity for GOP members to more directly say where they stand on cannabis?

Gabbard: The bill  takes a very direct approach that reflects a view that the vast majority of voters in this country hold. And it requires Congress to do its job both to debate this issue and then to take action on it, to end this destructive policy that is costing our economy so much, that is costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year. That is tearing families apart and damaging people’s lives. I don’t think most people realize or know that in one year alone, nearly 600,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession. You look at all of the impacts of what those arrests could mean. Turning everyday Americans into criminals, making them have a criminal record, making it hard to get a job, housing, financial aid, not to speak of the impact on their families.

Borden: Why aren’t Democrats united around one approach when it comes to how to legalize?

Gabbard: I think you could ask that same question over any issue that Congress takes up. I think the more important question, the more important statement, to make, is that I think the vast majority of Democrats agree with and recognize the need to end the federal marijuana prohibition. There are an increasing number of Republicans who are agreeing with this point, just as we are seeing this change happening in the country as well.

Borden: Where do you see cannabis reform as a priority among the other issues House Democrats are focusing on—like climate change and voting rights?

Gabbard: Well, I hope that my colleagues and our leadership in the House of Representatives see cannabis  as a priority issue, to bring this legislation forward and to pass it out of the House of Representatives, send it over to the Senate floor for all the reasons that I mentioned: This is a priority. Congress needs to make it a priority.

Borden: What are the obstacles to passing cannabis reform this Congress?

Gabbard: What I hear are some of the same myths and misinformation and theories that have stood in the way of making this progress for decades. So the challenge, and the opportunity, is to provide facts and information, and to tell the stories of people and communities across this country who are being impacted by this.

As a veteran, friends of mine are either dealing with post-traumatic stress or chronic pain from combat-related injuries and who are refusing to take the opioids that they’re being prescribed by doctors because they don’t want to become addicted. And yet their options are limited in many places in this country because a VA doctor is not allowed to prescribe or send veterans to a dispensary with a VA prescription [for cannabis]. It leaves veterans in a very difficult position. That’s just one example of many. So, I think folks in this country are much farther along than many of their representatives in Congress.

We have to also point to how in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, they’ve not only seen opioid addiction rates drop, but opioid abuse-related deaths have also dropped dramatically, and more every year that those laws are in place.  

Borden: There have also been bills introduced that deal directly with veterans and cannabis. Can all of these pieces of legislation really pass this Congress, with everything else going on and other priorities?

Gabbard: Well, look, I’m a co-sponsor of many of these other pieces of legislation. I think they’re necessary. The reason why I am focusing on the approach that I have in ending cannabis prohibition and pushing forward this data collection act is because if we pass this bill, then it would automatically address and deal with the issues being raised with many of these other pieces of legislation that pertain to veterans, that pertain to opioids, that pertain to banking, that pertain to small business protection. So if we deal with the root cause, then we’re not necessarily concerned with having to pass twenty different bills into law.

Borden: There are many new trade groups and lobbyists pushing cannabis reform. What does that mean for a member of Congress? Is it harder to push your version of reform when there are multiple lobbying efforts going on?

Gabbard: I mean, it depends. It depends on what they’re pushing —  if we get more and more voices and people who are pushing for ending the marijuana prohibition, I think that’s a net positive gain.  

Borden: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and others have said that they don’t want to support legalization without criminal justice reform and other equity-related provisions. Do you think that’s a mistake?

Gabbard: I don’t know what Cory Booker has said on this. I’ll just comment on my position, which is: I think we need to provide a very clear and direct path forward towards ending the federal marijuana prohibition. There are a lot of other things that we can address, both to deal with some of the challenges as well to create opportunities. But as long as this prohibition remains in place we’re going to continue to see the American people paying the price in a devastating and costly way.

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